Melancholy and hope, on a season’s bitter end.
[by Samuel Lucy]
PAUL WAS THINKING OF CAMILLE'S THICK WAVY HAIR and her smile that expressed an air of importance as she steered the outboard up-lake after her first duck shoot earlier in the fall. October’s orange colors swelled the marsh’s blue water. Puffed-up clouds in a warming sky reminded him that summer had begun to wane. There would be leaves to rake and pile that afternoon, firewood to split and stack, garden work, too. All this would be pleasing work after the morning hunt. She’d likely fall asleep on the ride home following a treat at the bakery. She’d been up at 4:30 and in the truck by quarter to five.
“If only I was this fast when it came to making the bus, huh, Papa?” Her wit alone nearly broke him. Never mind that she was already eight. She loved watching the Labs take turns on the birds.
Then there were the pinfeathered first-of-the-season birds to pluck and clean by the woodpile, where the cats lounged in the late sun. She’d help choose the meat for that night’s grill and vacuum-pack the rest. Maybe they’d grill and eat the whole lot?
The geese talked to the silhouettes when they first spotted them; Paul called on his flute. The birds responded and turned his way— 30 strong.
To have and to hold, all right; things always deepened when the leaves turned. Right then, his heart sighed, wanting that moment frozen as he’d wanted the past eight years to rewind and then proceed a lot slower. She herself had said more than once: “I don’t want to grow up. . . .” But then, he and she wouldn’t have now, and that is what was to be gained by putting one’s heart on the line—as it had once been with lovers, with dogs, and now with children. Children trumped them all. The mere hint of loss in this regard was agonizing, yet it had played on his mind. Within their community, there were too many parents who endured such a cruelty, most recently a good friend, Ray, whom he’d hunted with late last season, just after the new year.
While leaving the marsh that opening morning, Paul knew that he’d never visit it again without remembering this time with Camille. Even if she decided just once was enough, she’d already gotten a taste of early-season duck hunting when all the local birds mixed with the early comers. He and she hid in the tall grass by the beaver lodge, and the Labs perched comfortably as gadwalls, pintail, mallards, and divers buzzed through in the early hours—enough birds so Paul tried to shake off the rust of the past eight months, regained some of his old swing, and dumped a few right there in front of the decoys so Camille could understand shooting range.
“Okay, this one is going to be a shot,” she had said as a pintail swung wide over the grass, cupped, tucked in its long neck, and headed for the blocks she’d help place. They watched it flare, and Paul stood and buckled the bird as it tried to climb for those early autumn clouds, and everything went still a moment before she said, “Whoa . . . got that one!” And then chose which dog to send.
SINCE THAT OCTOBER MORNING ONLY THREE MONTHS HAD PASSED, but it seemed long ago. Though he’d asked her a few times, Camille decided not to join him again that season, even for an afternoon hunt. He’d had some good hunts with steady friends, including Ray, who’d shot his first goose.
If the autumn’s mellowing colors weren’t enough to elicit the blues, the low gray fog over the mighty winter river, the silence, and the last day of the season all added to Paul’s shaded heart. Heavier on his mind, though, on this Sunday, when he may have had enough hunting for the year, was that he’d convinced himself he could easily have stayed home with the family. It had been his wife who exclaimed: “I can’t believe you’re not going to hunt!” And that had done it. He loaded the gear and dogs and headed down-valley to the big river.
Over the previous few hunts, Paul had hunted over water, and the divers and geese had afforded late-season shooting, but it hadn’t been as good as usual. He’d not been field hunting since Christmas, and as another whole season drew to a close, he regretted not scouting more, though he knew some puddlers and geese were using the standing corn, even as snow deepened. After an hour or more of looking for a place to hunt, Paul settled on a particular corn plot deep within the refuge. The spot bordered a long strip of corn and sat not 50 yards from the river. Better yet, he had a windbreak behind him.
He had brought only a couple dozen silhouettes and left the rest of his shells and field gear home—the hunt almost an afterthought. As he considered decoy placement, he scanned the skies but saw nothing but hawks, thin lines of bare trees, and eagles working the river for crippled birds, surfacing fish, or whatever else they might gather up during this coldest time. He set the decoys in walking fashion on the corn’s edge. He placed the goose sentries in the white opening to draw attention, then placed the mallards right in the horseshoe pocket of the geese. Finished, Paul found plenty of cover in the windbreak for himself and the dogs, and began the wait.
Watching over a frozen field with the low ceiling of fog felt somehow lonelier than sitting over the big water, where almost always, there were birds circling, even if they moved offshore. Guilt began to creep in. Perhaps he felt sorrowful because he’d not stayed home to ski or sled or skate with the girls. Yet, there was plenty of winter left. He supposed, too, that other fathers might be watching football or doing something other than family sledding— this came as small consolation.
Once, he heard geese from out on the big water, but they seemed as far away as the moon. He wished for some company. He’d asked his daughter to come along; she’d declined. “Next year, Papa. If it’s okay . . .”
“Right,” he’d replied. “Hunting alone is good, too.”
Already, just the one hunt that fall, and Paul feared Camille might be growing bored—not just with hunting but with him as well. After all, he’d been the only one shooting. Her presence there in the frozen corn with the silence working on him would have added new purpose and perhaps given him light, yet Paul felt creeping thankfulness that she’d stayed home. Seeing boredom on her face would have taken him deeper into his funk, which had burdened him so that he himself felt an awkward boredom—something that he’d never experienced during a hunt. Then he heard geese murmuring behind him. Are they coming?
He reached over and steadied the dogs. The field was small and the birds would have to work tightly from the side to drop in, but they’d been here. In this field. Their footprints in the snow and their droppings provided proof. He waited.
The shots would be close if they committed. Then he spotted them; already sliding inland and toward the bluffs. The geese talked to the silhouettes when they first spotted them; Paul called on his flute. The birds responded and turned his way— 30 strong. Too many, he thought—too damn many eyes. But they kept coming. Their noisy approach lifted his low mood.
WOULD PAUL TELL HER HOW IT HAD BEEN 35 YEARS SINCE HE SHOT HIS FIRST GOOSE? Thirty-five years, and he could still see it stall in midflight when he shot straight overhead with his brother’s 16 gauge. Would he tell her that every goose since had brought the same excitement? The sound of them alone brought the same rush, whether sky-high on their migration with the faint, distant, age-old music spoken as if from the clouds or the quiet murmur as they appeared from the fog to circle once and then drop their feet straight for the spread. He theorized that a goose for the holiday sanctified country living, rich or poor. How he could feel their thick winter down like cotton on their breasts—smell the fresh, northern air from their travels when he plucked them out— loved to see the yellow, marbled skin that he knew would be perfect for the grill. Oh, she’d eaten her share. She loved the geese and ducks. Both his daughters did. Birds were the first meal he cooked his wife, not knowing she was vegetarian at the time. This group took a peek, circled once, and headed up-river.
Was it the spoof they detected? Paul felt confident they couldn’t possibly have seen him and the dogs. Too many eyes for the last days in January. That’s all. Too many eyes. Quiet returned as Paul stared at sagging corn stocks surrounded in white.
"...these were big, winter-tough, and wary honkers, already paired for spring. Sixty yards, 50, 40, 30..."
He wondered, just when had those little duck tracks and the heavier prints of geese occurred? He was sure it had been within the last day, yet they were not fresh enough to be that morning’s. Afternoon feeders, Paul decided—they had to be. The younger and quieter of the Labs circled the snow, scratched at it, then bedded down with a groan. The older female stayed intense, ever faithful to the thought there could be action any moment. But the pall continued, and the strange hollow afternoon kept working on him.
ANOTHER FLIGHT OF TOO MANY GEESE CAME OFF THE RIVER, and a few ducks trailed it. The geese looked only once before setting for another field. The mallards, however, broke back and swung the field twice and dipped toward the spread about 60 yards out. Paul readied himself, deciding the small group’s next swing would be lower and he would shoot. He’d push the distance with bigger loads. Overland, a cripple wouldn’t be a problem with two dogs on it. The ducks set up for their next swing over the trees. He saw the lead drake, stood, and began his swing. ... Not a shot, he thought. He would not even have considered it if Camille had been there. He knew it wasn’t a good shot. A cripple is a cripple, he repeated to himself. A potential intentional cripple was even worse. “Not a shot,” he heard himself say. He hoped his daughter’s interest would hold up and spare him hunts alone with his thoughts.
The ducks flared when he rose, but he was surprised that the late-season birds approached the field at all and risked feeding during the day—it just wasn’t cold enough for such a gamble. Just about all good field hunts Paul recalled over the years had one common ingredient: cold. Today, it was above freezing, not close to the right sort of cold. The last half hour, or more precisely, that last 10 minutes of legal shooting hours often made all the difference. Having lasted this long with his tainted thoughts on the last day, Paul planned to hunt to the bitter end. He owed it to the dogs. Plus, when he got home, she’d be there to ask: How was it?
A northerly breeze stirred from the river behind him. His ass was sore from sitting, but he knew it wasn’t the time to get up and go for a warm-up walk with the river just starting to darken on a dark day, and a check at his watch showed 20 minutes until closing for the day, the week, the season. Paul felt the age-old lift in anticipation with the subtle change in light.
Something caught his eye—something above the far edge of the corn against the farther, almost impossible backdrop of dark bluffs also blotched in snow. Then there was another flicker and he picked out the white movement of wings and breast; then he saw the pair low, already hooked in the right direction that would take them up the edge of the corn. The birds would either set to the dekes or rise up for the river. He felt himself sink in his seat as he held his breath.
The pair of geese kept coming, closing the distance without making a sound. “Both or neither,” he’d already told himself. If she had been there, he’d explain later why he wouldn’t risk just one. He was loaded stiff with number 1s, and these were big, winter-tough, and wary honkers, already paired for spring. Sixty yards, 50, 40, 30. They flared up over the silhouettes. Now, that’s a shot! Paul almost shouted as he stood and swung with them. He crumpled the first bird, then panicked after missing the second shot, but staying with it, tripped the second with his last shot. He could still see the second bird falling after the two distinct thuds, and the dogs raced out across the crusted snow to bring in the pair. It hadn’t taken that long...
She met him at the door, and he could still see the busted feathers waving in the gray winter air as he ran his cleaned hands though her hair. “Got those ones, huh!”
“And maybe we’ll get more next year,” he said.
“Yup. Maybe with my own shotty.”
Maybe so? Maybe next year, a buckled bird or two of her own for the Labs. Paul couldn’t wait.
Sam and his wife own and operate an organic-grain business in Washington State. In his “spare time,” he enjoys two daughters, hunting, skiing, and writing. His work has appeared in Gray’s for more than 20 years.